by Joan Wallach Scott. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. Cloth. 208pp. $24.95/£14.95. ISBN: 9780691125435.

Reviewed by Hootan Shambayati. Department of Political Science, University of Missouri–Kansas City. Email: hootan2 [at]


In this book, one of the foremost students of France asks why has the head covering worn by millions of Muslim women across the world attracted so much controversy in recent French politics. Even in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world, where the veil is worn by large segments of the population, it has become a potent political issue with different societies and political regimes adopting very different approaches in dealing with it. The constitutional court in secular Turkey recently rejected a constitutional amendment because it could have potentially eased the ban on female university students wearing a headscarf, while neighboring Iran legally requires all women to cover their hair in public. Although, this book deals only with the French case, it has implications beyond the borders of that country.

As Joan Wallach Scott recognizes, there are many different styles of veil, from the full body covering and face masks to the more relaxed version that only covers the hair and the neck. In addition, each has a different meaning for both those who wear them and those who are concerned about them. Nevertheless, for the sake of brevity and to reflect how the term was used during the actual debates in France, she uses the generic term veil to refer to all forms of headscarves worn by Muslim women (p.16). Scott is also quick to warn the readers that “this is not a book about French Muslims; it is about the dominant French view of them.” She is “interested in the way in which the veil became a screen onto which were projected images of strangeness and danger – danger to the fabric of French society and to the future of the republican nation” (p.10). She pursues her quest by examining the circumstances that led to the adoption of a 2004 law that banned the display of “conspicuous” religious symbols in French public schools. As is well known, although legally the ban applied equally to all religions, its true targets were a small number of female Muslim students who insisted on wearing the veil to school. The question then is why did the veil become such a controversial political issue in French politics (p.3)?

Chapter One, under the title “headscarf controversies,” discusses three historical moments when the veil erupted into the national political scene in 1989, 1994, and 2003. As Scott points out, these controversies did not reflect an increase in the number of students with headscarves in public schools or in the society at large. Nevertheless, as the chapter clearly demonstrates, each historical moment led to the hardening of the government’s position from leaving the decision on the admissibility of religious symbols, including veils in schools, to local officials who, based on a 1989 decision of the Conseil d’Etat, had to decide whether they constituted [*991] “acts of pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda” to the 2004 adoption of an outright ban on the display of all religious symbols in pre-college public schools. Although Scott recognizes the intervening events that might have led to the hardening of the government’s position, she rejects the notion that the decision to ban headscarves “was a reaction to an objective worsening of . . . circumstances” and instead argues in favor of an argument based on changes in both the domestic and international climate in explaining the timing of the controversies (p.36).

For Scott the French reaction to the veil is deeply rooted in France’s colonial and the French society’s approach to secularism, individualism, and sexuality. These themes are discussed in the next three chapters and dominate the bulk of the book. Chapter Two discusses racism and how it continues to be the dominant force in the French approach to immigrants, particularly those from its former Muslim colonies in North Africa. In fact, as Scott argues, the term “immigrant” is reserved only for North (and sometimes West) Africans, but not for those originating from European lands (p.88). France’s approach to the Muslim/Arab population is a continuation of the colonial attitude of seeing Arabs as an inferior race in need of civilizing. According to Scott, like their colonial predecessors, French politicians attributed the problems of poverty and marginalization among North African immigrants to their cultural inferiority caused by Islam. Consequently, they not only blamed the victims for the racism to which they were subjected but also concluded that the immigrants can only become French if they abandon Islam (pp.80-81). As Scott notes, “the civilizing process, once the justification for colonialism was now to be applied to immigrants” (p.81). Thus, the veil came to be seen as the symbol of the inferiority of the Muslims and its elimination from the public sphere became a state objective in its attempts to “civilize” the immigrants, much in the same way that the colons had tried to do in Algeria.

This racist attitude, still prevalent in parts of the French society, is often hidden behind the veil of secularism. The French laicite, or secularism, is, of course, very different from its American counterpart. In the US, “the separation between church and state was meant to protect religions from unwarranted government intervention . . . In France [or Turkey], separation was intended to secure the allegiance of the individuals to the republic” (p.91). As Scott shows in Chapter Three, the extreme form of laicite advocated by the proponents of the ban has historically been in tension with other versions that see more room for accommodating religious practices and beliefs under the republic. Nevertheless, the supporters of the ban see the presence of headscarf wearing students in public schools as a challenge to the very essence of the republic. This perception of a growing threat is further strengthened by the memory of the country’s colonial experience where the veil had emerged as a symbol of the humiliation of France in the wars of liberation that brought about the end of the empire (p.66). In the fight to protect the republic, the schools are seen as particularly important battlegrounds where lines had to be drawn, since they “are considered key to disseminating and stabilizing republicanism, to creating [*992] France as a nation one and indivisible” (p.107). However, as Scott notes, “it is not religion but the republican model that, by taking religious and the secular to be absolute opposites, poses the most dangerous obstacle to democracy” (p.123).

The next two chapters deal with the concepts of individualism and sexuality in France. Once again, the careful analysis of these two concepts shows the underlying racist causes of the attempts to exclude headscarves and those who wear them from public schools. As Scott argues, convinced of the superiority of their philosophy, the advocates of the ban did not see a contradiction between the justification for the ban that it would free Muslim women from the yokes of traditional society and the consequences of the ban that led to the expulsion of the headscarf wearing women from schools (p.125). Nor did they see a contradiction between the prevalent practice before 2004 of allowing the followers of other religions to wear religious attires such as Yarmulkes and Sikh turbans in the classroom. Instead they argued, that Islam was a special case where “the girls in headscarves were captives in a culture that held them against their will” (p.127). Consequently, “the headscarf could only be an imposition of that culture; its removal a sign that liberty and equality had prevailed” (p.129). From the perspective of the supporters of the ban “a decision to wear the veil could never be seen as reasonable choice” (p.129).

The fifth chapter picks up the French understanding of sexuality and how it has shaped the debate on the veil. Scott argues that the French, or at least those among them who supported the ban, equated sexual emancipation with social equality and saw Muslim modesty as both sexually and socially aberrant and unacceptable (pp.153, 156). Sexual equality has become a primordial value on par with laicite. “Those who do not share the French value are not only different but inferior – less evolved, if capable at all of evolution” (p.173). This belief in the superiority of the French understanding of sexual equality, however, masks an inherent contradiction in the “abstract individualism that is the basis for French republicanism: if we are all the same, why has sexual difference been such an obstacle to real equality” (p.154)? Consequently, the veil as the symbol of “Islam’s insistence on recognizing difficulties posed by sexuality revealed more than what republicans wanted to see about the limits of their own system (p.154).

In this short commentary on the “politics of the veil,” Joan Scott authoritatively rejects many of the arguments that are often used in favor of totally excluding Islam from the public sphere. In doing so she has provided much food for thought and has written a book that is equally valuable to scholars and to students in a graduate or upper level undergraduate course. The findings and arguments are not only applicable to France and other European countries that have sizable Muslim communities but also to Muslim majority countries like Turkey where the veil continues to generate controversy. In both settings, as former Turkish Prime Minister Ecevit put it, the veil poses a “challenge to the authority of the state” (Turkish Daily News, 4 May 1999). Scott rejects the seriousness of this challenge in the [*993] French case but the secularists are not the only ones who see the veil as “enemy flags” (p.176). Many Islamists also wave the veil as a flag. The larger problem is that both extremes see the state as a “civilizing agent.”

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Hootan Shambayati.

The Politics of the Veil (The Public Square)